Wednesday, June 1, 2011

BOOK/MOVIE: "Cheyenne Autumn"


     Cheyenne Autumn is an historical novel about the Northern Cheyenne Exodus from their reservation in Indian Territory back to their homes in Wyoming in 1878. Sandoz starts by describing the appalling conditions in the south and the mood of a people who had been repeatedly lied to by white authorities. When they finally have had enough, they leave on a perilous 1,500 mile trek through hostile territory with little food, weapons, horses, or hope. They start with 284 ragged Cheyenne with only 87 warriors. They are led by Little Wolf (carrier of the Sacred Bundle) and Dull Knife. Both chiefs want to avoid war with the whites, but have trouble constraining the young men who hope to count their first coups and hunger for revenge for white atrocities.

     The Cheyenne are continually dogged by Army units. Even though they are short of guns and ammunition, they manage to beat off numerous attacks. In one battle, Little Wolf sets up a classic ambush and warns the young men to wait until the soldiers are completely in the trap before opening fire. Not surprisingly, one of the braves ruins it by firing an early shot. The white commander then flanks the Indians, but the Cheyenne avoid destruction when he is wounded and the soldiers retreat.

     Sandoz fills the reader in on the previous battles involving the Cheyenne as background to explain the plight of the people and how innocent Cheyenne were killed in past encounters with the whites. It is clear that both sides were to blame for murders on this trek, however. Especially in travelling through Kansas, the Indians do some thieving and killing, most of it justified. These actions enrage the white frontier and it does not help that the media greatly exaggerates the depredations. Ironically, by the end of the trek, many whites have become sympathetic to the “noble red men”.

     The tribe splits when it reaches the edge of their old hunting grounds. Dull Knife decides they have come far enough and the suffering is too great so he wants to go in to Red Cloud’s Agency. Unfortunately, the sympathetic Sioux leader is prevented from accepting them. During a blinding snow storm, Dull Knife’s band is blocked by an unbeatable military force and he surrenders. His people are led to Camp Robinson where they are at first given some freedom, but later the decision comes from the Great Father that they must return South. Dull Knife refuses to go and threatens suicide. “’We will never go back there; we will die first,’” Dull Knife said once more, the words already so worn from repetition they had no life, only the stench of something long dead. The answer they got was the same old, old admonitions to wait, more of the lifetime that they had waited on the Great Father.” Capt. Wessells, in command at Fort Robinson, has them locked in a barracks without food, water, or fire. One unfortunately moonlit night, the desperate Cheyenne break out with the few inadequate weapons they have hidden. A running battle occurs with many of the men, women, and children killed on the snow covered prairie. Many of them are murdered. This culminates in an assault on the last refuge of the last group of survivors in a pit (“The Last Hole”) at Warbonnet Creek. All of the men are killed along with most of the noncombatants. They go down fighting in a hopeless cause.

     Meanwhile, Little Wolf and his band are miraculously moving undetected closer to their destination of the Yellowstone River. They spend over a month recuperating in a secluded valley. Eventually, they must move on and get surrounded by troops led by their friend Lt. Clark. “White Hat” Clark convinces Little Wolf to give up for the sake of the survivors and come in to Ft. Keogh. Little Wolf consents and the trek ends. As a post script, Little Wolf kills Thin Elk, who had been flirting with his youngest wife throughout the journey. Having killed another Cheyenne, Little Wolf gives up his position of carrier of the Sacred Bundle.

     The movie “Cheyenne Autumn” directed by John Ford was “suggested” by the book. It covers the broad outlines of the novel. The movie starts with the Indians leaving the reservation because the last straw is the failure of a congressional delegation to arrive on time. They are led by Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) and Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) carrying the Sacred Bundle. They are joined by a Quaker schoolmarm named Debra portrayed sanctimoniously by Carol Baker. Capt. Archer (Richard Widmark) is sympathetic, but gives chase. By the way, he is in love with Debra. It is unclear what he will do when he catches the Indians, but the arrival of his commanding officer (Maj. Brayton) with two cannons, results in a battle where the Indians are wantonly bombed, but strike back by running off the cavalry horses. Brayton, an obvious Indian hater, is killed thus avoiding the messy court-martial he had threatened Archer with.

     Archer also has his own eager young men to deal with. They are personified by Lt. Scott (Patrick Wayne) who disobeys orders and launches a frontal attack that results in an ass kicking by the Indians who have set the prairie on fire. Later, of course, Scott becomes an admirer of the Cheyenne. The Indians continue on their way, but with little effort by the filmmakers to show the hardships heartbreakingly chronicled in the book. In fact, the Indians all seem to be well-armed with repeating rifles which is the exact opposite of the book.

     The lover’s triangle makes it into the movie in the form of Red Shirt (Sal Mineo) wooing Little Wolf’s wife. To add conflict, Red Shirt is Dull Knife’s son. The movie introduces Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson) as a friend of the Indians and defender of them from the machinations of the railroads and their allies, the Army.

     Midway through the film, Ford inexplicably detours to Dodge City for comic relief centering around Wyatt Earp (James Stewart) playing cards and then leading a drunken posse (replete with a portable saloon) after the Indians. The expedition is brought to a chaotic halt when a lone Indian opens fire and a shot sets off the ammunition wagon like fireworks. This segment was mercifully removed from the film for its second and third runs.  (It does have a hilarious line where Earp looks down at the crotch of a prone whore and finally remembers her from Wichita City).

     The Indians break up with Dull Knife going in to Fort Robinson. Archer’s unit arrives soon after. Wessells (Karl Malden) is portrayed as an Indianophile who is just following orders by locking up the Indians. Archer is upset and leaves for Washington to plead the Indians’ case. Wessells goes overboard with the “no food, water, or fire” threat and gets the break-out which is shown as a brief, bloody escape. Next thing we see is Dull Knife reuniting with Little Wolf. There is nothing about all the deaths in the escape. Soon, Archer arrives with Secretary Schurz and they persuade Dull Knife and Little Wolf to take a gamble that Schurz will be able to get them fair treatment. The next scene implies that he does exactly that. In actuality, the real Schurz favored shipping them south. The movie closes with Little Wolf calling out Red Shirt and then gunning him down before he can fire a shot. Little Wolf hands over the Sacred Bundle to Dull Knife and rides off into the sunset.

     The book is much better than the movie. Although a novel, Sandoz has written the definitive history of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus. Sandoz is able to write like the Cheyenne spoke which makes the novel different and intriguing. She uses the sparse Indian way of speaking. She intersperses Indian words like “veho” for whites and Indian similes. The book also is excellent on Indian life, containing many intimate details. It is at its best in putting the reader into the minds of the Native Americans. You clearly see how their way of thinking differed radically from the veho.

     The book is heartbreaking, yet inspirational. I was constantly amazed at how this ragged band was able to survive under such harsh conditions. Not only are they lacking in guns, but some of their cartridges are lacking in gunpowder! They survive encounters with Army units that they had no chance against. Some of it is luck and some of it is moral superiority. You root for them even though you know they are doomed to fail. The chapters on Fort Robinson will bring tears.

     The movie is a lame attempt by Ford to get into Heaven after all his other Westerns portrayed Indians as savages. It was his last Western. The scenery is awesome as usual with Ford sticking with Monument Valley even though it looks little like the terrain the Cheyenne actually crossed. The movie was nominated for an Oscar for cinematography. The acting is adequate with Widmark filling John Wayne’s shoes well. The use of Latino actors for the main Indian characters is a little offensive, but at least most of the extras were Navahos. Notably, the Indians speak their native tongue (actually Navajo) with no subtitles.

     The movie is accurate in its general outline. There was no Debra, of course. That subplot was required by Hollywood. Archer appears to be a composite character, but is close enough to Clark. Wessells is accurately portrayed although the doctor putting him under arrest is b.s. The Indian love triangle is simplified, but is an acceptable rendering. The less excusable inaccuracies involve the virtual absence of depictions of the hardships the Indians went through. There are passing references to hunger, but no mention of diseases or exhaustion or freezing. You feel sorry for the Indians, but do not feel their pain. The military aspects of the story are terribly botched. The only accuracy is the Indian messing up the ambush.

     Read the book. It is important. Shame is not always a negative thing. Only watch the movie as a companion to the book.


  1. I read a few good reviews about books by Mari Sandoz and although I'm not a reader of westerns this seems like a book that I need at least to put on a wish list. I doesn't seem like the typical western anyway. I have a feeling I will definitely stay away from the movie.

  2. I am having trouble commenting on my own posts. So this is me as anonymous. Thanks for the comment, Caroline. I actually do not know if you would like the book. It is not well written in a conventional sense and the Indians were not exactly known for the lyricism. Also, if you are not already familiar with Indian culture it could be a slog in spots. It is not a quick read. You have to concentrate on each sentence.

  3. Why anonymous? Did it not accept the name? I studied cultural anthropology with a specialization in American Indians and Afro-Caribbean cultures. Started to learn Lakota Sioux a while back. (Didn't get very far though) There is some hope I would understand the book. :)

  4. I apologize for being condescending, but who would expect a European to be well-versed on Plains Indians' culture?

  5. Who would expect Americans to be well-versed in Plains Indian's culture?

  6. When we kill off a people, the least we can do is remember them fondly. It's what makes America great - our ability to be ashamed (decades later). I doubt Germans care much about Jewish culture.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.